But is the great divide between people just about money? Today, the Independent on Sunday attempts to redefine poverty. As we report below, being poor is not just about cash; it means having few opportunities, little ambition and no vision for the future. Then there are the well-off who have money but not much quality of life, and those who dedicate their lives to caring for others with little time for themselves and little cash to spend.
PRIVILEGED EDUCATION BUT OPTING OUT OF THE RAT RACE
Tom Edwards, 21, graduated from St Catharine's College, Cambridge with an Upper Second in social and political sciences six months ago. Unsure of what he wanted to do next, he moved back to his parents' house in Highgate, north London. Today, he is still there, and is happy to continue his comfortable, unemployed life indefinitely. While many of his Oxbridge contemporaries are working in the City earning salaries of up to pounds 30,000, Tom spends his days "walking the dog and reading the papers".
"At school and university, decisions were made for you, but now there is no one to tell you what to do. I didn't want to make a decision about my career, and when nobody was going to make it for me, it didn't get made at all."
Money has been a problem for Tom, but he has applied for "a few local jobs", including the position of hospital porter twice. Both times he was turned down for being over-qualified: "They couldn't understand why I wanted to do the job. I think they thought I was Donal MacIntyre [the television investigative reporter] so they gave me the elbow."
"It does seem very unfair: these people criticise you for having a privileged education, and then when you try to do something useful, the answer is a resounding no."
Tom's plans for the future are very fluid. "For the moment I will probably apply for simple jobs around here. I am reluctant to make a decision which has any kind of permanence about it. I don't have a great dream or a strong desire to make money. Without these two things, it's easier to prevaricate."
Tom sees the problem facing talented young graduates like himself as a situation where there are too many choices: "Going to a good university is a luxury, but it's a luxury with a twist."
JOHN WHITING, 21, decided to take "time out" from his degree course in geography at Jesus College, Oxford last April. After completing two years at university, he wanted to "find time to contemplate my future". Now, after a series of temporary jobs, he is working as a general porter at Bangor train station, County Down. He intends to go back to university, but for now is happy he took the break when he did, rather than fall into what he describes as a well-paid but unfulfilling job.
"I visited the careers service in Oxford once, but nothing really jumped out at me. It all seemed like hard-nosed advancement for the self-interested.
"There are people I knew at university moving into well-paid City jobs and they have no intention of staying there, so why are they doing it? I don't want a job where people use terms like `results driven'. There are so many people who are just products of the thousands of forms that they have filled in throughout their lives. I find convention totally uninteresting."
When he eventually finishes his degree, John is unsure exactly what he wants to do: "I want to be involved in something of social worth. Money for me isn't the be-all and end-all. University shouldn't just be about tooling yourself up for the job market."
Despite his outstanding academic record, John finds work "on the trains" very fulfilling. "I'd rather be doing this than juggling fictitious capital and living off a parasitic industry with no social value like the stock market."
CASH POOR, COMMUNITY RICH
Maggie Smith has sometimes been the sole breadwinner for her family, but it has not stopped her spending long hours working to improve conditions on the estate where they live in West Yorkshire.
Bracken Bank, is a sprawling, hillside council estate in Keighley. It's a place that benefits from being near stunning countryside. Many of those living there are on low incomes and have little money to spare. What they do have, though, is a close-knit community.
Mrs Smith, 46, has never had a great deal of money, but her sense of fulfilment is obvious. This is a life rich in family affection, in commitment to the neighbourhood and a belief that she can change things for the better. As well as raising her six children, she has been heavily involved in voluntary work and campaigning for her estate.
She and her husband, Peter, a club steward, and three of their six children manage on about pounds 300 a week which includes child benefit.
As she sat with her15-month-old grandson Thomas on her lap, she frowned at the idea of one day "rolling in money".
"I don't know what would happen to us if we won the Lottery; it could break us up as a family, you read about it all the time. No one has a lot of money on this estate but we look out for each other. We have a close family, good friends and a strong community spirit on the estate.
"The longest time Peter has been out of a job is three years. He has always worked in clubs but sometimes he has done labouring work when he couldn't get a job in the clubs. I would work, usually shop work, while he went from one building site to another looking for work."
Ill-health has stopped Mrs Smith from working but instead she has used the time to do more for her family and neighbours. "I'm back on the community association committee which raises money to send the children from the estate away for the day to places like Blackpool.
"There's a lot to do on the estate if people make the effort. Mothers and toddlers club, luncheon club for the over-fifties, all those kinds of things. But you have to make the effort.
"Somehow we mix better than others with money might do. Money can change that. The only time not having money frustrates me is when the kids come in and say `Mum, can I have some new trainers?' - you know those trainers with the designer names - and I can't afford them, at least not straight away. But they are very good, they know there isn't much money and don't often say `I want, I want'."
Mrs Smith's daughter Debbie, 19, adds: "I don't think I've ever really wanted for much while I was growing up. I've only really wanted food, family and friends and they are brilliant. Not having money hasn't really stopped me doing what I want."
HAPPIER AT HOME THAN IN THE CITY
When Kathryn Stafford gave up her job as an investment banker last year, she thought she would miss the buzz of work and the camaraderie of her colleagues. She had grown used to 10 years of early mornings, late nights and entertaining clients in exchange for the typically generous remunerations of investment banking. She was selling government bonds to financial institutions, making more money than she ever dreamed of. City investment bankers tend to earn more than pounds 100,000 in a good year. But once she had her children, she found that work was no longer the main priority.
"When I first started in the City I didn't see myself ever giving up work and being fulfilled by looking after two children," she says. "But once I had Tom and Flora I felt incredible guilt about working, despite employing Norland nannies to look after them. In my twenties I didn't mind working until eight o'clock and going drinking with my colleagues afterwards. But once the children arrived, I couldn't wait to get home to spend some time with them."
Finding suitable nannies is just one of the problems facing working mothers. "Nannies now want to live out," she explains. "It is hard to find one to live in and if they do they want a good wage. You can't drop your children off at a nursery school at 6.30 in the morning. When I left in the morning my son would be holding my legs trying to prevent me from leaving, and sobbing. Then when you get home from work your children are ready to see you, but you just want to relax. Then you feel incredibly guilty."
Living with guilt is one of the main problems for some working mothers. "One time I came home and my son fell over. When he started crying he ran over to the nanny for reassurance," she says. "The problem is you don't feel part of their lives. If they behave badly at weekends you don't know whether they are doing it deliberately or not."
The last straw was going on holiday with her husband and son, then aged 17 months. "I realised that I hardly knew him at all," she says. "It was then that I decided that my life would be richer not working."
Since giving up work, Mrs Stafford has toyed with taking up an interior- design course, but has decided not to start until Flora goes to school. "You realise that the older your children get, the more they actually need you. At least if they turn out to be badly behaved I will have only myself to blame now."
Despite the benefits of being at home with her children, there are times when she thinks it is a thankless task. "When I first gave up work I asked my son if he liked having me at home," she says. "He replied that he would prefer it if I went back to work and Daddy stayed at home with him."
EXHAUSTED AND EXPLOITED
Valerie Collins, 58, who lives in Kew, south-west London, worked as a university administrator but gave up her job 18 months ago to look after her parents, now in their nineties.
She realised she was needed in the home full time and couldn't bear to see her parents looked after by someone else. "My mother is wheelchair- bound and my father needs a Zimmer frame. Neither of them can be left alone for more than half an hour. They get frightened and confused if I'm away from them for long. They need my help to be washed, changed and fed. They need more and more attention.
"There's so much to do every day and I often feel exhausted - mentally and physically. I get help from social services on Thursdays and at weekends, but often I have to lift my mother on my own from her wheelchair into bed.
"I'm living off my carer's allowance, my parents' allowance and a state pension. Financially I just about scrape by, although if one of them passes away I'm in trouble. It's not just money - I worry how the other one will cope on their own. Emotionally it will be a very difficult time.
"I do feel the system is letting me down. It's an invisible role - the Government know carers are here but they don't acknowledge us financially. When I look at how much money we save them, I do feel that we're being exploited."
SELF-HELP IS THE ONLY OPTION
Zoe Muirhead takes another batch of sponge cakes out of the kitchen oven, intended for the Christmas party over at the estate youth club.
"I would love to set up a proper catering business but we are not making enough profit. We just about manage to pay for the ingredients, and what's left over goes to the event we are cooking for.
"If we weren't doing this, we'd be sitting around whingeing about our partners or men in general. There's nothing else for us to do. I don't have a job, nor does my partner. There are no real opportunities for the people who live here."
Ms Muirhead, 31, is talking about Ravenscliffe, a pre- war council housing estate on the northern outskirts of Bradford, where she lives with her partner, Dave Jones, and her five children.
"This idea had to come from us because there's nothing out there, no jobs, nothing to do. You can see things are changing, but slowly, with all sorts of voluntary community projects.
"It came out of a meeting of Parents Under Pressure. We needed money to send the kids camping, so we decided to make some cakes. We sold them and made a profit.
"We realised we had something here, that we could do something for ourselves and it just snowballed from there. I would really love to turn it into a proper catering business but we can't while we are on the social: we just don't have the money."
THE STRUGGLE TO RAISE CHILDREN AND STUDY FOR A BETTER JOB
Diane Peckham, 35, lives near Chippenham, Wiltshire, and has three children aged 10, nine and three. She is a lone mother in full-time education. "It's the lack of time rather than money that I find most frustrating. I've never had much money so my life has adapted to being poor. But it's juggling different roles that is so demanding."
Ms Peckham's day begins at 6.30am and often continues until 2.30am. She is studying full time for a degree in primary-school teaching in Bath; it takes her two hours to drive there and back."I have to be at college at 9am, so my mother comes at 7.30am to collect the children for school. I pick them up in the afternoon, but that leaves no time for required reading at college.
"Until recently I juggled college with a weekend job in a leisure-centre canteen but that didn't leave enough time to study. Now the children see their father every other weekend which gives me more time."
Her income consists of a student loan, a dependants grant and income support, which comes to less than pounds 10,000. This is spent on food, the children and petrol.
"I hope I'm working towards getting my children and myself off benefits. What worries me is my loan - by the time I finish studying it will rise to almost pounds 14,000. I'm in a Catch 22 situation. Because I don't work 16 hours a week I can't claim working families tax credit. If I worked over 16 hours a week I couldn't continue with my degree. If I gave it all up for a full-time job it would be grotty employment with no prospects and I'm trying to do something more."
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